Culture 18 November 2019
It's stating the obvious to point out that women get a bum rap.
We have, for virtually all of recorded history, been treated as frivolous, inconsistent, vain, foolish, or at best cannily deceptive. Entire bodies of literature are devoted to our malignancy, unpredictability, secretiveness, and childishness, painting a picture of a kind of person no one would want to be. In contrast, of course, to all the virtues of men; "virtue" itself derives from the Latin for "man." Perhaps, then, we shouldn't be terribly surprised at how we're spoken of when the language itself treats masculinity as identical to moral worth.
Concurrently, women who want to succeed in a man's world are advised to act, well, like men. We are too emotional, we're told, to be rational; if we want to command respect, we must shed that. We are too willing to compromise; we ought to stand our ground. We are weak; we must be tough, and constant; we are passive-aggressive where naked aggression is superior.
Femininity is weakness. Masculinity is strength.
The last few years, however, have brought a new mainstream acknowledgement of the counterargument through the rise, first in social media and later percolating up to the larger culture, of the term toxic masculinity. It encompasses a wide range of traditionally "masculine" behaviors broadly boiling down to suppressing emotion as a sign of weakness and using violence or the threat of violence as both an assertion of masculinity and a response to it being challenged.
In other words, we're at a place where the traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity as rational and strong versus emotional and weak are being called into question in the larger culture outside academia for the first time. And going right along with that is questioning the value of the traits we have historically valued. Perhaps "hardness," inevitable double entendre aside, isn't the virtue we've been led to believe it is. Perhaps, in fact, it's very much the opposite, and that far from women needing to embrace the public-facing toxicity of maleness – the fear of weakness, vulnerability, feeling, and compassion – men need to take a long hard look at what theologians used to call the "feminine virtues," because I think their stark separation from them is detrimental to men and women alike, fueling cycles of discrimination and abuse that have perpetuated themselves across human history.
It cannot be healthy for men to be starved from touch and emotional intimacy to such a degree that their only source for either is their wives, fomenting possessiveness and violence when that intimacy is denied. It cannot be healthy for men to feel obliged to project toughness, superiority, and dominance. It cannot be healthy to vilify gentleness, or compassion, or empathy, or kindness, or sympathy, or understanding, or compromise, or humility, or affection, or care. Yet all of these, a vast swathe of genuine human experience, are vilified and structurally denied to men unless accompanied by a degree of embarrassment and shame. That is toxic masculinity.
I keep thinking about the phenomenal, billion-dollar success of Oprah Winfrey, who built her empire first and foremost on meeting the emotional needs of her audience. She has, for decades, crafted a niche almost unknown to American culture beforehand: someone who gave voice to women's concerns without dumbing them down or condescending. And as her success grew, we saw in the male-dominated public sphere an increasingly mocking tone in discussion of her; first, laughing at her struggles with weight loss (a stereotypically female concern that she took seriously and discussed frankly), and advancing to mocking the emotional concern she demonstrated for her audience as "therapeutic deism," where "therapeutic" itself – the very idea of taking care of your mental and emotional health – denotes nothing but touchy-feely nonsense that makes you feel good but lacks the hardness of truth. The massive success she's received for meeting this fundamental need, taking women seriously in the process, is itself only evidence of the gullibility of an audience more eager to be told "I'm okay, you're okay" than to confront reality.
Which, even on its face, is massively dismissive, not only of women as a class, but of the very act of taking your emotional life seriously. Men are quick to do that, almost sneering at the word "feelings;" in fact, much of the informal discourse surrounding the discussion of gender relations infantilizes them as "fee-fees." And all that does is reduce emotional life as something not only optional, but demeaning of the subject. Feelings diminish men because feelings are womanly. And we all know how terrified men are of being even remotely womanly.
That underlines the essential fragility of masculinity, a concept theoretically founded on strength and resilience. Representing perfection, it is constantly under threat, weakened by exposure to femininity. If any embrace of "femininity" is demeaning, then that cuts off by fear of censure everything that goes with it, from emotional intimacy to hugging your friends and even to things as simple as self-grooming, lest we forget the "metrosexual," where taking care of your appearance was equated with effeminacy and by extension, homosexuality. Men are amputating critical emotional and social limbs because they don't want anyone to think they're gay.
But "womanly" doesn't need to be a mark against anyone. Women outperform men in ways we might find surprising: we earn more degrees, including at the doctoral level, and we are as a class superlative leaders according to Harvard Business Review, which published a study measuring leadership attributes back in June. There is something in the experience of being a woman that makes us more likely to be motivational, collaborative, supportive, self-improving, and results-oriented, and it's not hard to see why. We are so undervalued and demeaned that we strive to outperform; we are taught from a young age to concern ourselves with the needs of others and compromise, which makes us more likely to be experienced with consensus-building and teamwork; we are told we are inadequate so we are more likely to strive to improve ourselves. In other words, the very traits for which we are held in contempt are traits that make us especially capable in the most male-dominated sphere of all: corporate leadership.
There is a necessary humility in being a woman that comes from our ongoing position at the bottom rung of society. We know, in ways men don't seem to, that we are subject to the whims of others; we know, in ways men simply can't, what it's like to be tossed aside and dismissed. In the best of us, it fuels a desperate ambition that unlocks our vast and untapped potential.
So come on, guys. Embrace your feminine side. You'll find out that it enriches your manhood, and not the other way around. If we can learn to be hard, you can learn to be soft.
You'll be better (and happier) for it.
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During a recent meeting on Microsoft Teams, I couldn't seem to get a single word out.
When I tried to chime in, I kept getting interrupted. At one point two individuals talked right over me and over each other. When I thought it was finally my turn, someone else parachuted in from out of nowhere. When I raised and waved my hand as if I was in grade school to be called on (yes, I had my camera on) we swiftly moved on to the next topic. And then, completely frustrated, I stayed on mute for the remainder of the meeting. I even momentarily shut off my camera to devour the rest of my heavily bruised, brown banana. (No one needed to see that.)
This wasn't the first time I had struggled to find my voice. Since elementary school, I always preferring the back seat unless the teacher assigned me a seat in the front. In high school, I did piles of extra credit or mini-reports to offset my 0% in class participation. In college, I went into each lecture nauseous and with wasted prayers — wishing and hoping that I wouldn't be cold-called on by the professor.
By the time I got to Corporate America, it was clear that if I wanted to lead, I needed to pull my chair up (and sometimes bring my own), sit right at the table front and center, and ask for others to make space for me. From then on, I found my voice and never stop using it.
But now, all of a sudden, in this forced social experiment of mass remote working, I was having trouble being heard… again. None of the coaching I had given myself and other women on finding your voice seemed to work when my voice was being projected across a conference call and not a conference room.
I couldn't read any body language. I couldn't see if others were about to jump in and I should wait or if it was my time to speak. They couldn't see if I had something to say. For our Microsoft teams setting, you can only see a few faces on your screen, the rest are icons at the bottom of the window with a static picture or even just their name. And, even then, I couldn't see some people simply because they wouldn't turn their cameras on.
If I did get a chance to speak and cracked a funny joke, well, I didn't hear any laughing. Most people were on mute. Or maybe the joke wasn't that funny?
At one point, I could hear some heavy breathing and the unwrapping of (what I could only assume was) a candy bar. I imagined it was a Nestle Crunch Bar as my tummy rumbled in response to the crinkling of unwrapped candy. (There is a right and a wrong time to mute, people.)
At another point, I did see one face nodding at me blankly.
They say that remote working will be good for women. They say it will level the playing field. They say it will be more inclusive. But it won't be for me and others if I don't speak up now.
- Start with turning your camera on and encouraging others to do the same. I was recently in a two-person meeting. My camera was on, but the other person wouldn't turn theirs on. In that case, ten minutes in, I turned my camera off. You can't stare at my fuzzy eyebrows and my pile of laundry in the background if I can't do the same to you. When you have a willing participant, you'd be surprised by how helpful it can be to make actual eye contact with someone, even on a computer (and despite the fuzzy eyebrows).
- Use the chatbox. Enter in your questions. Enter in your comments. Dialogue back and forth. Type in a joke. I did that recently and someone entered back a laughing face — reaffirming that I was, indeed, funny.
- Designate a facilitator for the meeting: someone leading, coaching, and guiding. On my most recent call, a leader went around ensuring everyone was able to contribute fairly. She also ensured she asked for feedback on a specific topic and helped move the discussion around so no one person took up all the airtime.
- Unmute yourself. Please don't just sit there on mute for the entire meeting. Jump in and speak up. You will be interrupted. You will interrupt others. But don't get frustrated or discouraged — this is what work is now — just keep showing up and contributing.
- Smile, and smile big. Nod your head in agreement. Laugh. Give a thumbs up; give two! Wave. Make a heart with your hands. Signal to others on the call who are contributing that you support and value them. They will do the same in return when your turn comes to contribute.
It's too easy to keep your camera turned off. It's too easy to stay on mute. It's too easy to disappear. But now is not the time to disappear. Now is the time to stay engaged and networked within our organizations and communities.
So please don't put yourself on mute.
Well, actually, please do put yourself on mute so I don't have to hear your heavy breathing, candy bar crunching, or tinkling bathroom break.
But after that, please take yourself off mute so you can reclaim your seat (and your voice) at the table.